The Ballantyne Fire
There have, however, been terrible examples of the loss of human life by fire. Chief among these was undoubtedly the holocaust in a Christchurch department store in 1947 which cost 41 lives. The sudden development of a minor basement outbreak into a raging inferno represents the most shocking tragedy by fire in the history of New Zealand. It occurred during the afternoon shopping hours on 18 November 1947 in Ballantyne and Co.'s three-storey store in Colombo Street, Christchurch. The dead were all members of the store staff and, the bodies being unidentifiable, were buried in a common grave. The inflammable nature of a great deal of the £300,000 worth of stock and merchandise in the building (much of it in the basement where the fire originated), and the peculiar internal structural subdivision of the spacious premises, which covered a full acre of ground, encouraged the spread of what, after the first 20 minutes, could only be described as a gigantic roaring furnace. Staff were trapped on all floors, but most of those in the lower sections were rescued or escaped. Girls and women in the workrooms and offices on the upper floor were apparently doomed from the outset. About two hours after the alarm was given, firemen penetrated to the ground floor and found the first bodies. From then on the search was a long and melancholy one, and it was not until late at night, after a hastily summoned staff assembly had been checked and rechecked, that the terrible toll of the fire was definitely known. A Royal Commission of Inquiry investigated the disaster, sitting for 65 days and hearing 186 witnesses. The findings were revealing and resulted in a general overhaul of statutory safeguards in fire control. There was evidence of a delay in calling the fire brigade, but what was most disquieting was the Commission's unequivocal conclusion that there was failure on the part of brigade officers on arrival at the fire to realise the dire potentialities of the situation and to take adequate steps to meet them. The Commission also considered that the rescue efforts suffered from a lack of competent leadership.